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Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009
Fukumoto blazed quite a trail on bases before Rickey came along
Before the self-proclaimed (and arguably rightly so) "greatest of all time" and new MLB Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was redefining the way leadoff hitters would be viewed, the Hankyu Braves' Yutaka Fukumoto was helping to set the standard.
Japanese baseball's career leader with 43 leadoff homers, Fukumoto was Henderson on the diamond before Rickey was being Rickey during his 19-year career with the Braves from 1969-88.
Henderson was elected into the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Monday as a result of his outstanding career. While Henderson's accomplishments were staggering, Fukumoto built quite a name for himself as well.
In MLB circles Henderson's name is synonymous with stolen bases and the outspoken former outfielder retired as the all-time leader in the category with 1,406.
Fukumoto is Japanese baseball's career leader with 1,065, 469 more than former Nankai Hawks great Yoshinori Hirose, who ranks second all time.
Henderson also retired with the world record for career steals — a record he took from Fukumoto.
Fukumoto broke former St. Louis Cardinals star Lou Brock's then-all-time mark of 938 in 1983 and held it for 10 years.
Like Henderson, Fukumoto had an iron grip on the stolen base title during his prime, leading Japanese baseball each season from 1970-81.
Fukumoto also led the Pacific League with 54 in 1982, but Tadashi Matsumoto of the Yomiuri Giants in the Central League was the overall leader with 61.
He didn't just lead Japanese baseball in steals during this period, he dominated.
In that 12-season span Fukumoto finished an average of 35 steals ahead of his nearest competitor.
Not content with just dominating the stolen base statistics, Fukumoto also led the Pacific League in runs from 1972-80, then again in 1982.
He led the league in hits four times, doubles twice, triples five times (including a tie with Koji Minoda in 1979) and walks five times.
He's Japanese baseball's all-time leader in triples (115) and ranks second behind Sadaharu Oh in runs scored (1,656).
He retired with the career record in doubles with 449 until Kazuyoshi Tatsunami eclipsed him in 2005.
Fukumoto enjoyed one of his greatest seasons in 1972 when he set the world-record for steals in a single-season steals with 105 (a mark now owned by Henderson, who had 130 in 1982). That season he also led the PL in runs (99) and won the MVP award while leading the Braves to the Japan Series title.
His best seasons statistically came in 1973 and '78 when he led the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples and steals (he was also the PL leader in walks in '78).
Fukumoto retired in 1988 with a career average of .291, 208 home runs and 2,543 hits (sixth all-time in Japanese baseball) and was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Rickey Henderson's well-documented career, including a .279 average, 297 home runs and 3,055 hits, is a true Hall of Fame story. Judging by the numbers, however, Fukumoto's is a tale worth telling as well.